Sunlight. Barely cresting the horizon of the ocean, sending the skies into a brilliant gold, and igniting the waves that crash onto the Island. An island of rock and stone, built up so high it seems that there is no end. Doorways and windows, corridors and bridges, great spires topped with witches hats.
This glorious and peaceful sight is met with only two things. The first is music that is daunting, yet invigorating. A tune that fills you with energy for the chase, and yet calls you to gaze at it’s beautiful set pieces. The second is an unmistakable sight, one that urges your muscles to touch it, only a few short words.
Before we take a look into the nitty gritty, let’s focus for one second on what we’re talking about.
Dead Cells is a video game that graced the gaming stage in May of 2017, yet only recently received a PC release in August of 2018 (prompting this review.) Designed by Sebastien Benard (ACCENT MARK OVER THE E IN BENARD) and developed and produced by the studio Motion Twin, this single player roguelike game became an instant classic. Toting some impressive art and music as well as an amazing world to explore, but make no mistake. The reason people fell in love with this game is the challenge. For whenever you die in Dead Cells:
You start over.
Starting a new game (or a new run as I’ve come to call it) has you, an incorporeal gelatinous mass, dropping down from a pipe and inheriting the body of a recently deceased person. Picking up a rusted sword, you begin crawling through the dungeon, discovering new weapons like bows and kunai, and abilities such as freeze blast and grenades. Picking up new and better items along the way or buying them from a merchant you are sure to find somewhere in the labyrinthian halls of this castle, you will be faced with many enemies, some lunge, others shoot, few have shields, but all will kill you if given the chance.
As you progress and kill your enemies, you will be met with certain valuables; scrolls to increase your damage, blueprints for new weapons, treasures of gems and gold. The most valuable things to collect however, are Cells. More on those later.
Another set piece you will encounter quite a bit are teleporters. These gates act as fast travel points to other gates you have discovered, allowing for a quick get away, or for a way back up a dark pit. The become useful at times, however personally, the music and aesthetic left me wandering the halls more often than quick tripping back to a safe point.
This however, proved to be my detriment for often than not, for it is in these fits of wanderlust that we find ourselves dying, and being sent back to the beginning of the game. All items and abilities are lost. The map is reset by procedural generation, and you start over with nothing.
Or do you?
Dying is not starting over. Well, not in the way you may think.
You see, eventually, through your dungeon running trials, you will find a doorway. One that leads out of these halls and into the open! Or perhaps the sewers… Regardless! When you pass through into a new area, you are met by a merchant, but one of different sorts. He doesn’t deal in the gems and gold you find. He deals in that oh so valuable currency of Cells.
You may give your cells to the mysterious merchant one by one. Putting items away on layaway as it were. Items such as health potions and randomized starting weapons. Remember those blueprints for new weapons the enemies dropped? Progress into buying those blueprints and those weapons will be added to the pool of items to pick up during your adventure.
Next, the merchant has a hag. Well, a witch. Well… I’m not entirely sure, but either way, she is a valuable asset. When you meet her for the first time, she gives you a “mutation” for the rest of your run. Something along the lines of an extra life, or even gaining health back for every kill. After her, you are given the chance to refill your health and top off on any health potions you may have.
Aside from the witch, these perks you receive are permanent, so that even after you die, you will always have them with you throughout the rest of you playthrough. Allowing for the player to make, in the most incremental sense possible, progress. However there is another activity you can engage in that gives you permanent abilities. Boss Fights.
When you kill a boss, you are given an ability that proves to be helpful in earlier stages of the map. Being able to grow vines to reach higher places for instance, allows for ease of travel even after your inevitable demise.
Be warned though, bosses are bosses for a reason. The challenge will be great, and the resets will be hard, but in the end, the loot is far worth it.
You see, one of this game’s achievements is how it uses procedural generation. Enemies in a specific area do not change, however your surroundings and maps do. Where you find weapon pickups or health upgrades must be rediscovered with each reset. But what, pray tell, does this mean for your weapons?
Weapons spawn as a specific type, that does certain damage. For instance, you start with a blade that does, say, 30 damage per hit. Later you find a blade that does 60 per hit, or 90, or 250. These are known as blade, blade I, II, III, IV, and so on. But each blade comes with perks, of which are randomized. Some blades may bleed a target, or poison them, some may grant you health for every hit you perform, some stun, others freeze, ALL are deadly.
When you defeat a boss, the real loot is found. A sword that has twice the attack speed with bleed damage and health regeneration plus a 15% chance to freeze. A weapon like that can get you through the next few stages of the game for sure! Until that is, you die. And the weapon that you’ve grown to love and even name is lost forever.
VISUALS AND MUSIC:
Taking a bit of a detour from the macabre, let us talk about what drives Dead Cells home. Even the most well conceived and exciting games would be nothing without two things. Sound, and art. Dead cells brings both of these together with a harmony many other games fail to deliver.
Visually, the game is a 16 bit pixel art platformer game, and there is something about pixel art that draws in the player. It shows that games do not have to be hyper realistic 3D renders in order to immerse you for hours. To make you feel apart of the world. Dead Cells does just that. Warmth and light penetrate the holes of the castle, while dancing freely on the rooftops. Sickly green accompanies sewers and toxins, sapphire blues spread far on water. All done with an amazing attention to detail and beauty that the world becomes alive.
Sound wise, the game is just the same. Each new area has a new theme, one that sweeps and moves, nearly causing the player to lull into a slumber. Something it very well could do if it weren’t for all the enemies trying to kill you. Despite being unique to their area, the songs come together. Being derived from a main theme, yet having slight alterations for the area. Alterations that fit the game so perfectly, it is almost a crime.
Thought the game is frustrating at times, it truly becomes an enjoyable experience. Items are lost during death sure, and advancing with the merchant gives you hope, but more than that, as you get a feel for the game and how it chooses to operate, you get better. Soon you travel through the first few areas without getting hit at all. You now know what weapons are worth it and suite your playstyle, and where to put upgrade points when you find them. You begin to understand how it all works. The weapons, the movements, the visuals, the music, the story…
It all comes together to deliver an experience that could take 30 minutes, or 30 hours. And it is a treat the entire way through.
Whether or not it is worth it is up to you, as cliche as that sounds. The game’s average run time is 12ish hours, however with all the side quests and objectives, the game can take 27 to 30 hours to complete. It is an experience few other games can offer, and it is one that many, including myself, have fallen in love with.
Dead Cells is currently $19.99 on most if not all platforms, and is offered on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.